May 15, 2015

The Mid-List Astrologer

I am both an astrologer and a writer, two professions that are notoriously low-paying. So, when I recently saw an article on Salon.com written by Ann Bauer and titled, "Sponsored By My Husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from" [1], I was intrigued. For those of you who are unaware of how difficult it is to break into the publishing business—and I doubt there are many, as it seems everyone and her grandmother is writing a novel—the author confessed at the beginning that it was her husband’s financial success and support that allowed her the luxury of being "unemployed" so that she could continue to write.

Ms. Bauer went on to reveal how two other authors, one a seasoned pro and the other an up-and-coming ingénue, misled aspiring writers who asked at book signings how they had supported themselves for the many years it took to complete their novels. The first professed to have struggled, while he is, in fact, heir to a large fortune. The latter said she had remained childless in order to avoid the burden of responsibility that children demand of us. But the untold story was quite different. As the daughter of parents in the publishing business, the ingénue had been raised among the Literati, and her somewhat middling first novel was well reviewed by those who had known her since childhood. It was a bestseller before it was even in print.

Ms. Bauer is what’s known in the publishing business as a midlist author. She isn’t a Stephen King or J. K. Rowling, but just an experienced writer who produces good novels on a steady basis. By the same token, most of us are midlist astrologers. We aren’t blockbusters and celebrities like Linda Goodman or Joan Quigley, but just good, solid middle-class working astrologers. The problem is that the middle class is nearing extinction faster than disposable dollars.

While reading Ms. Bauer’s honest revelations, which fledgling novelists had suspected all along, but to which no one in the publishing industry would ever admit, I saw many similarities with the business of astrology. There is a hierarchy among us just as there is in the publishing business, and those on top are generally there by the same means as best-selling authors. Either they already had the capital to cover the overhead of office space, equipment, software, marketing platform, public image and employees to run their social media, or they were brought up at the knee of the astrological elite. Which is not to denigrate them in any way. I know of at least three who became iconic for blazing astrological trails where no man had gone before. But they were born more fortunate than the rest of us and made the most of their aspects, and as Ann Bauer pointed out, "Pretending otherwise doesn’t help anyone."

Truth be told, there’s a reason astrology was known in the past as the privilege of kings and billionaires. They were the only people who could afford a consultation. Because royalty and plutocrats comprise only about 3% of the world’s current population, it tends to narrow the field of clients who still have disposable income. When times are tough in long Saturnine periods of a drought economy, consulting an astrologer ranks far down on the list of necessities in life, dwelling in sub-basements below children, mortgages, utilities, food, clothing, vehicles, insurance, education, credit card debt … the list is nearly endless. Too large a number of Americans are living hand-to-mouth and one hiccup from homeless. So, along with writers, astrologers can have a bit of a stretch between paychecks. And also in common with writers, as well as the rest of the 47% who don’t earn enough to pay taxes [2], there are no insurance benefits or retirement plans. Some very well known astrologers who have authored textbooks and spoken at conferences have left the field for less glamorous jobs with steadier paychecks. They still make inroads through research, but no one pays for research.

And again, as with writing, the public rarely regards astrology as a real job. It’s perceived as a hobby, something we do as a party trick to amuse others or pick up strangers in bars. As Rodney Dangerfield would say, "I don’t get no respect." Sometimes I am hesitant to tell new acquaintances what I do because they either begin jockeying for position as my new best friend for the astrological benefits, or they’re smug cynics who quip, "If you can predict the future, why can’t you win the lottery?" And the answer is that we can’t rearrange the planets to benefit ourselves; we have to wait for them to come around in their own time. You can hold a paintbrush; why aren’t you Picasso?

As a former journalist for The Washington Post, Malcolm Gladwell’s fascinating books combine an eclectic mix of statistics, psychology, social studies, natural laws, surveys, and a study of biographical facts about the rich and famous. He claims that the key to mastering any field is a matter of practicing a specific task for a total of 10,000 hours. "Ten thousand hours is the magic number of greatness," he concludes. [3] Ten thousand hours is roughly forty hours a week for five years.

The general public has no idea that it takes decades of study and life experience to become an expert astrologer. It’s one thing to memorize cookbook definitions and key words, but they’re just words on paper until we experience for ourselves how planets can devastate our lives, bring enormous joy, or time our crowning achievements. We often don’t gain real insight into how the cycles of the outer planets mark turning points in our destinies until we ourselves have survived a few plot twists in life.

We have always studied the aspects between the planets for all the most important times in history and collected data and cast a chart every time someone notable does something noteworthy. Births, deaths, achievements, arrests. Through the decades we’ve built hefty banks of searchable data and filled trunks with personal memories of how it was to have lived through a particular cycle of transits, like the 60’s, or to have witnessed historic events such as world wars or the Kennedy assassination.

Astrology is our religion. We devour all the texts we can get our hands on that will inform our research and baptize ourselves in theology. Is there a God? A Goddess? Can we answer those questions by stargazing? We have ferreted out the unedited astrology that remains in the Bible, recognize the evolution of an eternal soul, and embrace the theory of reincarnation. We have learned that the Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Egyptian Book of the Dead are one and the same because we took the time to read them both. We know the single common thread that runs through every major religion in the world because we have read their holy tomes. We recognize that the link between science and religion is Newton’s Third Law of Motion. We study the aspects of all the brightest stars in science, medicine, entertainment, politics and world domination, and explore the greatest minds of mankind through their natal charts. We have mapped the cycles of the planets throughout the world’s development, and given pause that the ephemeris for the twenty-first century includes only fifty years.

And yet, how often we’ve felt exploited by clients who asked us to trade work for secondhand clothing we’d never wear or discount coupons for art we could never afford to buy unless we won the lottery. Once when I declined, I was insulted with the phrase, "I know how to handle you Aquarian types." I have had people request a reading and then actually suggest, "Maybe you’re not the kind of astrologer who wants to be paid," as if I dwell in the spiritual world rather than the reality of the material one. In fairness, I have occasionally been thanked with some rather nice gifts from the client’s recent trip to Europe. And Abu Dhabi. And Hong Kong. But these same people would never dream of attempting to pay any other professional in such a manner, nor impose upon them for free work. Students, family, friends, neighbors, even casual acquaintances don’t hesitate to ask for complimentary readings. We get mail daily from complete strangers asking for "a quick question" that would require three or four hours of chart work. And even paying clients tend to monopolize our time and dictate our schedules with their mini-dramas requiring immediate assistance.

Although we may forego the fancy address in favor of low overhead and a little tax break, for most of us, astrology isn’t a hobby or something we do to relax. It’s what we do to put bread on our tables and keep the lights on. Just like creative writing, it’s a job. Some of us have degrees in psychology or liberal arts. But I will add, especially in these times of enormous student loan debt, that in 35 plus years, only once, and very recently, has any client ever asked me if I have a degree or if I am certified by the AFA.

I once read, but can no longer recall who wrote, that two astrologers are all that any mid-size city can sustain. The one with the best marketing skills, though not necessarily the best astrological skills, might maintain a steady client base, and the other will be relegated to giving second opinions to those who weren’t satisfied with the information given by the first. We profess to spread love, enlightenment, mindfulness and a variety of other north node karma goodies around, but a somewhat ugly truth is that it is a competitive business by the sheer need to receive a share of whatever disposable income is afloat. And it’s not only other astrologers with whom we contend. There’s a lot of interesting competition out there for what those in the publishing industry call woo woo. Psychics, hypnotists (especially those specializing in past life regression), reiki masters, Tarot readers, tea readers, palmists, crystal ball gazers, spiritualists, voodoo queens. In the public eye, we’re all one and the same.

In addition, we must also subtract a number of potential clients from the infinite number of fledgling astrologers who are eager to provide cookbook readings to willing victims at no cost, whether or not they can tell Jupiter from Mars. Not only do these over-eager beavers decrease potential income for the midlist astrologers, but they often contribute to a questionable reputation of our craft within the general public.

Astrology is something we do because we have to, like breathing. It’s what we’d do even if we didn’t get paid, the same as writers write. We can’t help ourselves. "Do what you love and the money will follow," is a cliché touted by the wealthy to placate the midlisters of the world. But as Ann Bauer pointed out, to mislead those who are struggling and making great sacrifices to do what they love, or that for which they are destined, does them a disservice. To wrap ourselves in glamour and hide the fact that it can be exceedingly difficult to make a living as an astrologer, when the truth is that most of us need a sponsor to help us through the lean times, doesn’t help anyone.
 
References and Notes 

[1] Ann Bauer, "Sponsored By My Husband: Why it’s a problem that writers never talk about where their money comes from," in Salon.com, Jan 25, 2015.

[2] Lucy Madison, "Fact-checking Romney’s ‘47 percent’ comment," in CBS News, Sep 25, 2012.

[3] Malcolm Gladwell, Outliers: The Story of Success, Back Bay Books, 2011, pp. 38-41